Saturday, December 11, 2010

Sunday in McMurdo

It is my first Sunday in McMurdo and I am starting feel ‘in the swing of things.’ The pace of life here is interesting, very different from what most people are used to. Breakfast is 5:30 to 7:30. The typical workday is 7:30 to 6 with a lunch break somewhere in the middle. Bars open at 7pm and are usually packed. Day people tend to go to bed early, but there is a nightshift (Midrats -- so called because the cafeteria opens to feed them Midnight Rations). Walking through the dorms, “Day Sleeper” signs are common, reminding people not to wake the second shift (and raising the question of vampires). People work Mon-Sat, and take Sunday off. Saturday night is the big party night, with wine bottles at dinner and long lines to buy booze at the store.

The lifestyle is taking some getting used to. Though it is one of the most isolated places on Earth, the camp is CROWDED. Every public place has people in it at every hour of the day. Everyone has at least one roommate, some people have five. Public computers and internet ports often have waits, and sometimes the only privacy is to go back to the office after dinner.

McMurdo Station and Ice Runway

Our work is split between an office area (typical office), the T-Site where our first antenna was built, and an operations center in town where our back-end electronics are housed. The T-Site is on a hill overlooking the town and has spectacular views of Mt. Erebus, the Ross Ice Shelf, and the Royal Academy Range.

The Office

The biggest event of the week was moving flight operations from the Ice Runway to Pegasus. This involved about 24 hours of convoys moving buildings and equipment across ~8 miles of sea ice, including the air-traffic control tower. Apparently the road was so chewed up that one of the Deltas (see picture) got stuck and took several hours to extract.  The driver told us it was the "worst road trip ever -- 10 hours in a delta and I ended up exactly where I started."  I also heard from some mechanics that they burned out the transmissions in several vehicles trying to get everything moved in time for the next flight. The road is ice and packed snow, groomed much like a ski slope.  Several days of unusually high temperatures (we’ve had a few days in the high 30’s and low 40’s) contributed to the bad roads, which hold up better when it stays well below freezing.  The Pegasus runway is also on the ice, however it is on the permanent ice shelf (well, permanent so far...) so they can use it through the summer.
Delta on the Ice Runway

Three Interesting Things

  1. The waste processing center is in an area called sausage point. Minds out of gutters people. Apparently garbage was buried here in the 50’s and 60’s, and one season there was a vast amount of sausage left over, which was buried. When expanding a building, they dug into this lovely cache of 40 year-old sausage (permafrost--so things do not decay here). This delicious discovery a rather stinky clean-up earned the name Sausage Point.
  2. A skua is a 2’ long bird (about the size of a penguin) which will aggressively try to steal your food as you cross between buildings. Imagine a 20 pound pigeon with a beak as long as your finger that will NOT back down from a fight.
  3. There are several recreational hikes around the camp. For longer ones you must travel in groups, must carry a radio, must check out at the firehouse and if you don’t check back in on time they begin search and rescue in the 1st 5 minutes you are overdue. At least 3 people have died on these leisure hikes over the last several years, most by going off the marked trail and falling into unmarked crevasses. I can’t imagine the last hours of those they ‘almost’ saved.

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